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Mobilewalla used cellphone data to estimate the demographics of protesters (buzzfeednews.com)
369 points by psychanarch 10 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 271 comments





> Datta [Mobilewalla CEO] said Mobilewalla didn’t prepare the report for law enforcement or a public agency, but rather to satisfy its own employees' curiosity about what its vast trove of unregulated data could reveal about the demonstrators. Datta told BuzzFeed News that the company doesn’t plan to include information about whether a person attended a protest to its clients, or to law enforcement agencies.

> Mobilewalla does not collect the data itself, but rather buys it from a variety of sources, including advertisers, data brokers, and internet service providers.


So really a whole load of different companies are tracking tons of people, and anyone can buy and aggregate the data, then query it for insights. It's good that they publicised it rather than capitalising on it.

If you expect a discount on your mcmuffin expect your data to be sold. That's the only reason store apps exist. To exfiltrate your data including tracking your movements.

Mobilewalla literally exists for the primary purpose of capitalizing on that data.

They also mentioned their disapproval of riots and that they were worried about 'outside agitators', so it reads very much as if they went looking for the data to support their theory. The notion of wicked 'outside agitators' has often been thrown out by politicians who don't want to engage with an issue; it's an old trope that was used to delegitimize the civil rights movement in the 1960s by blaming it on communists or the influence of Martin Luther King. He commented on the trope explicitly in one of his Letters from Birmingham Jail:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Most recently, this was heard in Georgia following the death of Rayshard Brooks, and a subsequent riot in which a Wendy's restaurant was burnt down. A cry went up about 'outside agitators' and suspicion fell on a woman pictured at the scene; it turned out she was the late Mr Brooks' girlfriend.


The current iteration of the trope also infantilizes actual black protestors and rioters, as if only “white outsider anarchists” can lead black folks to express their anger in ways that don’t please white notions of “model minorities”

This almost mirrors OkCupid’s dataviz articles they’d do for publicity.

The data is aggregate data. It shows mostly males, in the 18-34 age bracket, mostly white.

The CEO whose surname is Datta. Quite appropos.


Reminder: OKCupid is owned by Match Group (also owns Tinder, Plenty of Fish, BlackPeopleMeet, OurTime, Twoo, match.com, and others), which sells their entire profile database (unredacted(!), with full names, sexual preferences, locations, and photos) to data brokers[1].

Very few services are immune from this. I learned recently that Airbnb (YC W09) actually sells your chat logs[2] and stay history(!) to data brokers, which can be used for stalking or kidnapping in the wrong hands.

Coinbase (YC S12) is also one of the companies that sells your activity log (including IP addresses and timestamps, which amounts to a location tracklog) to a third party without your explicit consent (other than creating a Coinbase account).

1: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/59vbp5/shady-data-brokers...

2: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/business/secret-consumer-...


Remember that YC prefers to fund "naughty" founders, to use their own term.

http://paulgraham.com/founders.html

What We Look for in Founders

4. Naughtiness

Though the most successful founders are usually good people, they tend to have a piratical gleam in their eye. They're not Goody Two-Shoes type good. Morally, they care about getting the big questions right, but not about observing proprieties. That's why I'd use the word naughty rather than evil. They delight in breaking rules, but not rules that matter. This quality may be redundant though; it may be implied by imagination.


Jesus. I imagine getting the 'big questions' right is so vague as to remove any culpability from both YC and those it funds.

I mean, if I had a friend who openly claimed to be 'naughty' in this way, I'd start being very cautious around them.


YC is right, though. People who play by others rules rarely succeed. All these senior managers, vps, execs, business owners arent known for following the silly rules.

Basically our society rewards douchebaggery...

Nearly all products, markets and human interactions operate on specific model which makes some assumptions, those assumptions often end up as rule - so that the model stay predictable for the people governing it.

By not following those assumptions (rules) you can make a new better model which might have better accuracy at representative real world problem than the existing model.

It doesn't mean that it's unethical or morally wrong. It doesn't have to be.


This might be better framed as D&D's chaotic good alignment.

I find it weird to say good founders should 'delight in breaking rules', as that is a really consumer tech biased (and frankly, privileged teenage male) point of view, where external stakes are relatively low.

That attitude can be pretty counterproductive in a lot of important industries. It may be necessary to break certain rules to achieve a larger common good, but to bias toward breaking them (rather than to see it as simply sometimes necessary) represents one of tech's worse qualities, and probably does a lot to filter out a lot of potential founders.

Also take issue with the idea that successful founders are 'usually good people'. At least in my experience most are in the chaotic neutral camp where they generally don't care much about externalities as long as they're not too bad or seriously affect them, and their ideas about 'changing the world' are generally indistinguishable from their own personal success.


That vice article is more interesting than the OPs one.

Sounds like a GDPR fine waiting to happen.

CCPA is really focused on sellers and aggregators of personal data, and this is a perfect example of why they need regulation.

> I learned recently that Airbnb (YC W09) actually sells your chat logs[2] and stay history(!) to data brokers, which can be used for stalking or kidnapping in the wrong hands.

That's a pretty big misrepresentation of the NY Times article. From the article:

> Sift doesn’t sell or share any of the data it has with third parties.

Sift is a third party risk analysis provider. One of its big selling points is that it can correlate fraud signals across multiple data sets. So, essentially, companies that DON'T want to share data with each other can share data with sift and rely on it to provide aggregate results back. In this way it's the opposite of a data broker. Companies trust it to hold sensitive data they don't want to share.

There are a lot of reasons why any centralized fraud prevention service is concerning and I know that many companies, including Airbnb, limit their use of these signals for that reason. Truthfully, I think the dangers of such a service far outweigh their value and it simply shouldn't exist at all.

Regardless, it's quite different than selling your data to a data broker. If there were any indication that Sift were selling or sharing this data I guarantee they would get dropped instantly. If you believe that a company can't really care about its users' privacy (and you might be justified in that) just consider that sharing this data would be the same as sharing it with the fraudsters it ostensibly tries to stop. That would defeat the entire point of the service.

To a sibling poster, the premise of the NYT article is that Sift allowed end users to download their own data because of GDPR not in violation of it.

There are often threads on here criticizing Airbnb for allowing fraud on the platform and saying they do nothing to prevent it. Here we're criticizing them for sharing data with a centralized fraud system to gain signal on potential fraud.

I think this is the crux of the discussion about the surveillance state vs "defund the police". Algorithmic fraud detection is a frequently racist invasion of privacy. But fraud and crime are also both bad and tend to have a more significant impact on a company's brand / reputation than overreaching in terms of data collection and surveillance. So it's very important to hold them accountable for their use of data but let's not muddy the argument by misrepresenting what's happening.


How did Sift get it, if it wasn’t disclosed by the second party in the first place?

I don’t want my booking site disclosing my location to others who may use it to harm me, full stop. I have no idea what internal controls, if any, Sift or any other service provider has in place to screen their own staff or their own data handling procedures for safety. Even Equifax didn’t get this stuff right.

If I am telling a vendor where I sleep and when I am sleeping there, it is a huge breach of my privacy and safety for them to tell third parties without my explicit consent. This includes even relatively innocuous stuff, like database hosting. One disgruntled employee and a .torrent file later and many people’s lives or safety are put at risk.


First party; the first party writes the contract, the second signs it, the third isn't named.

I wonder if this is an example of nominative determinism[0]

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nominative_determinism


"Datta" as a surname (Indian origin) has a very different meaning[0] - "granted". Time for a stronger theory I suppose, "nominative determinism holds across homonyms" :-)

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutta


My favorite is Andrej Kar-path-y.

I also wish Gene Hackman had become a CRISPR scientist, not an actor.


It's not an English surname though.

That’s true but they may have grown up with English or at least studied in university where English was spoken.

OKC's collection was from their own service that people had clearly signed up for and provided data too--even if they released those studies a ways in the past before people were as familiar with privacy concerns, it was at least a more direct relationship with the subjects.

Some aggregator third-party add-on library integrated into other apps snarfing up data is a bit different and more concerning, though thankfully it's the specific sort of thing GDPR and CCPA were designed against.


An aptronym.

mc32 says>"This almost mirrors ok Cupid’s dataviz articles ... The data ... shows mostly males...mostly white."

No. MobileWalla's statement in the article:

"African American males made up the majority of protesters in the four observed cities vs. females,” Mobilewalla claimed. “Men vs. women in Atlanta (61% vs. 39%), in Los Angeles (65% vs. 35%), in Minneapolis (54% vs. 46%) and in New York (59% vs. 41%). "


No, that’s a problem with their sentence construction.

All it means is that among African American blacks, males were the majority.

The key is:

""African American males made up the majority of protesters in the four observed cities vs. females,”"

vs. females (when looking at male-female distribution in the African American pop of protesters, in those four cities the majority were men).


"African American males made up the majority of protesters "

This is very clear. No idea what you are talking about.


Ethnicity Distribution:

A substantial majority of the protesters were white, in the cities where the data was gathered, with the highest percentage in Minneapolis (85%), followed by Los Angeles (78%), and Atlanta and New York (both at 76%). A total of 18% of the protesters were African American in Atlanta, 11% in Minneapolis, 13% in New York and 3% in Los Angeles. Those numbers remained steady during the nighttime hours. Hispanic and Asian American participation was less than 10% in all four cities.

https://www.mobilewalla.com/about/press/new-report-reveals-d...


Marc1 says>"Ethnicity Distribution: A substantial majority of the protesters were white, in the cities where the data was gathered, with the highest percentage in Minneapolis (85%), followed by Los Angeles (78%), and Atlanta and New York (both at 76%). A total of 18% of the protesters were African American in Atlanta, 11% in Minneapolis, 13% in New York and 3% in Los Angeles. Those numbers remained steady during the nighttime hours. Hispanic and Asian American participation was less than 10% in all four cities.

https://www.mobilewalla.com/about/press/new-report-reveals-d...

Again, nothing you say here can be found at the URL you provided. In fact the words "male", "female" and even "%" do not exist at that URL.


They moved/removed the doc. Here's the link of the cached copy [ https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:pX1Cst...] and text:

>"Ethnicity Distribution: A substantial majority of the protesters were white, in the cities where the data was gathered, with the highest percentage in Minneapolis (85%), followed by Los Angeles (78%), and Atlanta and New York (both at 76%). A total of 18% of the protesters were African American in Atlanta, 11% in Minneapolis, 13% in New York and 3% in Los Angeles. Those numbers remained steady during the nighttime hours. Hispanic and Asian American participation was less than 10% in all four cities.

Male vs. Female During the daytime hours, the majority of Black Lives Matter protesters were male in Atlanta (58%), Minneapolis (56%) and New York (62%). However, in Los Angeles, the greatest number of protesters during daytime were women. At nighttime, the percentage of male protesters increased in all four cities.

African American Males vs. Females African American males made up the majority of protesters in the four observed cities vs. females. Men vs. women in Atlanta (61% vs. 39%), in Los Angeles (65% vs. 35%), in Minneapolis (54% vs. 46%) and in New York (59% vs. 41%). There was no statistical change for the nighttime hours.

How Old Were the Protesters? The overall age of the protesters in all four cities skewed heavily in the 18-34 age ranging from 66% in New York and L.A., 67% in Minneapolis to 69% in Atlanta. Protesters in the 55+ age group ranked second ranging from 24% in New York, 23% in Atlanta and Minneapolis to 20% in Los Angeles."


Then either their pie charts are wrong/mislabeled or their prose writing sucks. Compare the two.

The full sentence you're quoting makes things a bit murkier to me: "African American males made up the majority of protesters in the four observed cities vs. females,"

possibly more clear to say something like: "for African American protesters the majority, xx%, were males." If that's what they're trying to say.

That's not how language works. You can't freely remove words from a sentence and assets that the meaning remains the same.

The wording + the way the article is layed out may blur the information.

I think the source is a little bit clearer.

https://www.mobilewalla.com/about/press/new-report-reveals-d...


I call BS. The link you supply

https://www.mobilewalla.com/about/press/new-report-reveals-d...

has no data and no clarification.


I don't know what's up with their website. The link redirect to a page about covid-19 as of now (https://www.mobilewalla.com/blog/fighting-covid-19-with-loca...)

marci says>* marci 10 minutes ago | parent | on: Mobilewalla used cellphone data to estimate the de...

I don't know what's up with their website. The link redirect to a page about covid-19 as of now (https://www.mobilewalla.com/blog/fighting-covid-19-with-loca...

Same: no data and no clarification at that URL.



404.

The cache works for me. Graphs are in a PDF linked from that report, which may be found here:

https://f.hubspotusercontent40.net/hubfs/4309344/MW%20Protes...

The protests appear to have been all been majority (70%+) white, assuming we believe this report. This seems to indicate that some of the wording they used in the text is incredibly confusing.


> “It’s hard to tell you a specific reason as to why we did this,” [Mobilewalla CEO Anindya] Datta said. “But over time, a bunch of us in the company were watching with curiosity and some degree of alarm as to what’s going on.” He defined those sources of alarm as what he called "antisocial behavior," including vandalism, looting, and actions like "breaking the glass of an Apple store.” He added that they were attempting to test if protests were being driven by outside agitators.

Probably not the best defense to be made when people are concerned that this technology is being used to suppress and monitor protestors...


Not sure "defense" is a good characterization. Doesn't sound to me like they felt accused or guilty. Sounds like an explanation. They felt some amount of civic duty in publishing their findings, or they'd have kept this to themselves.

They're examining the data to determine how to market it. Just a normal internet business trying to get by and expand their market. This article is excellent advertising.

Look on their web pages:

"Why Partner with Mobilewalla? Our partners are always looking for rich, comprehensive data and profiles to provide to their clients. Likewise, Mobilewalla is always looking to increase the quality of our data through partnerships with companies like Oracle Data Cloud.

Mobilewalla provides brands from any vertical or industry with the insights and long-term needs to personalize, target, and scale their marketing initiatives - from basic demographics like gender, location, and device type, to highly nuanced and detailed profiles...Mobilewalla provides insights into customer behaviors as they exist in the real world, all based on mobile-app usage and location-based intelligence."


[flagged]


Only speaking for myself, but no, I don't think tracking all citizens to determine which ones are white supremacists is a good idea.

This information is Checkov's Gun[1].

Stipulate that the current crop of businesses and customers are ethical.

There are zero (0) guarantees regarding what happens in the next act.

So more thought is needed about the who/what/where/when/why about collecting data.

The newest and shiniest technology is not automatically optimal in the long term.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov's_gun


> Probably not the best attack to lump together rioters and protestors. And I thought all the rioters at the protests were white supremacists trying to start shit anyway; don't you want to track them?

What exactly are you going to do with information about who is starting the riots, turn it over to the police? Are they going to arrest the white supremacists who are more or less on their side in this debate?


> Are they going to arrest the white supremacists who are more or less on their side in this debate?

Please don't talk out of your rear end. There are plenty of good cops out there: I know and have worked with a bunch. In fact, some of them go after white supremacists.


Please don't break the site guidelines like this. It's against the rules, it helps nothing, and it detracts from your point. Your comment would be fine without the first sentence.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


> There are plenty of good cops out there: I know and have worked with a bunch. In fact, some of them go after white supremacists.

There are, I'm not a "All Cops Are Bad" kind of guy. But there are absolutely bad cops, and since cops get punished severely if they report other cops bad behaviors, it's impossible for outsiders to separate the bad from the good.

Cops need to fix their own shit or this will continue.


My friends try to. The broad paint-roller treatment the very folks that can prosecute civil rights violations get here on Reddit disturbs me.

There are exceeding decent people working in law enforcement. I have worked with more than one, to say the least. The people I've met who expressed openly racist sentiments were gone relatively quickly. I can't speak for everyone, but I can say there are actually a whole bunch of people who aren't like what you posit. Perhaps together everyone can center in and eliminate the malcontents instead of this insane "All cops bad" narrative.

I can't say this about everyone I know in law enforcement, but for some (real, not racist) justice is one of their missions in life. There are those who care out there.


This (and much worse) has been happening for decades. "Don't take your cell phone" is pretty much rule #1 of going to protests.

I don't even go to protests, but this is in the news all the time. E.g. the surveillance tactics the government used to break up the Dakota Access Pipeline protests was a major news story around the entire world.


your cell phone is your camera though, which can be a very powerful accountability tool. Is there a reason that it wouldn't be better to go into airplane mode, disable wifi and bluetooth?

> Is there a reason that it wouldn't be better to go into airplane mode, disable wifi and bluetooth?

If that worked then presumably Snowden would just do that instead of turning his phone off, taking out the battery, and putting it in the refrigerator.


That does work, unless you're someone like Snowden, who is targeted by the strong surveillance apparatus.

Do you believe >300M Americans already have malware on their phones which runs when they hit Airplane mode, and tricks them in to believing all radios are off, when it is in fact still pinging NSA servers with telemetry data?

I don't. Such technology surely exists, but it is not massively deployed, because doing so would spoil its usefulness. Basically, "We're not that important."


At WWDC Apple revealed that their “Car Keys” feature would work 5 hours after the phone has died, so you don’t lose the ability to access your car.

They didn’t announce new hardware that could do this. It’s available in every new iPhone. This is proof that this capability (to run software even when the phone is “off”) has been around at least for a number of years. It’s not a huge leap to imagine that some malware could rewrite the firmware and enable e.g. microphone listening when the phone is off.


Any app that would transmit your data in real time can save it and transmit it later.

I feel like a $25 digital camera would be a better bet for several reasons.

The camera can be lost or break. With a phone you can live stream to the internet, and everything will be remotely recorded no matter what happens on the site (unless lose of internet connection), and no matter what police do to your phone

Confiscation/search is still an issue.

As far as the camera, the country is awash in old cell phones. If your goal is documentation (as opposed to immediate Twitter posts), it is far better than using the one with a phone number.


Have there been recorded cases of police forcing people to unlock encrypted phones of protesters in the US? I would feel pretty safe with my iPhone in airplane mode (with all the radios off).

I don't know of any cases specifically from protests. And this time most of the cop riots seemed far more focused on cracking skulls than surveillance - it seemed more about defending their egos against status attacks than more carefully planned oppression.

But there have been many cases of cops forcing or attempting to force phone unlocks, and more where they coerce unlocking by lying about the law. Which is perfectly legal - the cliche about cops being being paid to lie is perfectly accurate, if not a full explication of their duties.

Feelings of safety are pretty individual. Apps that access personal data of importance don't live on my phone that leaves the house.


Don't forget the locations services

It gives what percentage of the protestors were black in each city, 18% in Atlanta, 3% in Los Angeles, 11% in Minneapolis, and 14% in New York City.

In all of those cities that's lower than the percentage of black people in the general population, so black people were underrepresented. But they were much more underrepresented in Los Angeles and Atlanta than in Minneapolis or New York.

Here's a table. First column is percent among protestors. Second is percent among general population. Third is first column as a percent of second column.

  18 52 35 Atlanta
   3 11 27 Los Angeles
  11 19 58 Minneapolis
  14 24 58 New York City
I.e., in New York and Minneapolis you had close to 60% as many black people as you would have expected if you just went by city demographics. In Atlanta it was only 35% and only 27% in Los Angeles.

I wonder if there is some factor, especially in Los Angeles and Atlanta, that discouraged black people from wanting to attend or some hardship to attending that disproportionately fell on black people?


Someone interviewed white people in New York about abolishing police and lots of them whole-heartedly agreed. They interviewed black people in New York about it, and they said it was insane to want to do that. That would fit these statistics.

From my understanding "abolish the police" means to reorganize it and greatly reduced the funding. For example in L.A. the police budget is about $3bn and the next biggest item is public works at $1.5bn. That's kinda a ridiculous amount. I saw a reddit post in /r/dataisbeautiful [0] that broke it down and showed some redistribution.

But of course "abolish the police" means a lot of different things to different people. I'm sure there are people that want literally no police but I'm also sure they are a minority.

That's kinda the problem we have today. We turn complex conversations and topics into their most extreme forms and so we can actually discuss them. And we presume the other person has an extreme view that opposes ours but we ourselves are smarter and now nuanced than the person we're "discussing" with. There's lots of examples. For example here we're discussing "should police exist" instead of "what should police be doing" and often people are even divided on the topic because "police stop bad guys" and "police are to serve the community and uphold the social contract."

[0] https://www.reddit.com/r/dataisbeautiful/comments/hflutt/rei...


>From my understanding "abolish the police" means to reorganize it and greatly reduced the funding.

sort of just depends on who you ask.

I have people within my social circle that want to literally abolish the police -- erase the concept entirely -- citing historical examples groups of people that had no such similar concept as a central policing group.

Because of fringe opinions like that I tend to take care when I read or say things like "'X' means this", because that's the power of language, some folks really do mean abolish the police, while some simply use such language with a somewhat 'hyperbolic' or satirical meaning.


Seconded, The power of language is incredibly important. "Defund the police", "Abolish the police", the many different ways it's being phrased are radical demands. If the people saying these things mean something else they should use another set of words. Because there are plenty of people in this movement who really want to tear things down.

Yep. When there's a New York Times OpEd titled "Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police"[1] it seems inaccurate to tell people that this is simply a poorly worded slogan that really just means "reallocate funding."

I get the impression that the minority of protesters who started using the slogan "Defund the Police" meant "Defund the police." But then there were a number of people who were sympathetic to these protesters but also realized that getting rid of the police is a very extreme position, and they started rationalizing things by saying that the protesters _really_ meant something else ("When people say "Defund the Police" what they actually man is..."). Even when the people themselves keep saying, "No, we really mean get rid of the police."

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abol...


I don't see it as a lot different than "Starve the beast"[1]. "Starve" means kill by removing nutrition or sustenance. But do we literally take it to mean "cancel the government by removing funding"?

There's a difference between a slogan and a program. Somehow accuracy and correctness in slogans are only demanded when someone doesn't agree with the basic premise of the program.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starve_the_beast


Starve:

  ... transitive verb
  a: to kill with hunger
  b: to deprive of nourishment
  c: to cause to capitulate by or as if by depriving of nourishment
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/starve

Is that significantly different from what I said?

But you can't make a sign that says "We want to radically change the duties of law enforcement but we aren't exactly sure what that should look like and need to start a national discussion so that we can move forward and fix what is clearly a problem."

At least not a very good sign.


You could have a sign that said “fix the police”, “reform the police”, etc and it would more accurately describe your views than “abolish the police” (assuming you are indeed not a person who wants to abolish the police). And I’m sure you could come up with a lot of creative and compelling ways to say it. It’s not possible to fully describe the subtlety of your views in a protest sign, but at least you can make a sign that‘a compatible with your views.

I'm not disagreeing with you. I think "fix the police" is a more accurate slogan. But slogans are intended to prime someone about an idea (not to convey!) and generate emotion. But trying to read any slogan as a literal meaning is simply naive. Slogans have to be smaller than a tweet and look at what a clusterfuck conversations on twitter are. Hell, even here where we can type hundreds of words it is difficult to accurately convey complex ideas.

I said in another comment, communication has 3 components: what is said, what was meant, and what was heard. We have to recognize that these are 3 different things and frequently all 3 are different. Communication is extremely difficult. So try to say what you mean and try to hear what was meant. (obviously this is a saying and in of itself is limited and should be taken more as a baseline idea rather than a literal and absolute point to stand on)


"Defund police" isn't the same string value as "Abolish police". In your haste to demand correctness from others, you seem to be twisting words yourself.

The phrase “abolish the police” is used in the grandparent, great-grandparent, 4-parent, 5-parent, and 6-parent of my post.

You're right, fair enough.

I feel that this was missed so I'm reiterating.

>> But of course "abolish the police" means a lot of different things to different people. I'm sure there are people that want literally no police but I'm also sure they are a minority.

I'm under the opinion that you actually __AGREE__ with me considering

> Because of fringe opinions like that

If we presume "fringe" and "minority" hold similar meanings here.

> that's the power of language, some folks really do mean abolish the police, while some simply use such language with a somewhat 'hyperbolic' or satirical meaning.

This is what I'm driving at, except I want to change it up a bit

> that's the power of language, a few folks really do mean abolish the police, while most simply use such language with a somewhat 'hyperbolic' or satirical meaning.

We're discussing the power of language, so I think the distinction here is important. The fact that we're having this conversation was kinda my point. We're arguing over what people mean instead of arguing over what should be done. We're letting fringe/minority voices represent the majority opinions. This distracts us from the nuances and complicated discussions that we need to be having. I am claiming that the way these topics are being represented is itself a major issue, because of the power of language. We are being primed to view others opinions in ways that do not represent them. All that causes us to do is fight and never have the true discussion.

You can always find someone that has "X" position. The problem is that when you represent group "Y" with position "X" when "Y" doesn't hold that position. It is a problem that we have to discuss this before we discuss what needs to be done. I personally am deeply frustrated by this.

So I will ask: "What led to you responding to me in this way? What part was I unclear about?" Because to me it is clear, but given your response it is apparent that I wasn't.

EDIT: To the downvoters, I am honestly trying to get feedback into how I can better convey the message. Would you mind also leaving a comment along with the downvote? That way I can understand?


This a good example of misleading data. For instance, the school district budget doesn't appear because it's part of the budget for LA County not LA City. But If you look at it[1] and adjust per capita, you actually get almost twice the budget as the police. It also leaves out that a very large part of these budgets are pensions.

But beyond that, I've always felt that the attitude of "this is a lot of money, therefore we should cut it" to be a poor way of approaching things. We should allocate funds based on whether or not the return we get is worth it, not based on whether or not the number we invest sounds big. Cutting specific things that are unnecessary or saving money by making things more efficient seem like a good idea, but cutting budgets just to say that you're cutting budgets doesn't.

[1] https://achieve.lausd.net/cms/lib/CA01000043/Centricity/Doma...


It's funny, because I actually agree with you

> I've always felt that the attitude of "this is a lot of money, therefore we should cut it" to be a poor way of approaching things. We should allocate funds based on whether or not the return we get is worth it

The difference is I think: "When we're scrutinizing budgets we should look at the largest ones first." Which would be a pretty logical way to investigate.

So pretty much we're in agreement.


> From my understanding "abolish the police" means to reorganize it and greatly reduced the funding.

"Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police" https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abol...


Can you clarify how this contradicts my comment? I am at a loss in how this shows me wrong. Or maybe I'm misunderstanding the intent of your reply.

I think very few people want to get rid of the police. I think people are tired of the militarized police. They don't need MRAPS. They don't need to show up at a domestic call with full body armor and assault rifles. We need to end programs like 1033 that gave them access to military equipment. End no-knock warrants. Things like that.

Many people, including me, take simple English words rather literally. So the usage of "defund" is simply "prevent from continuing to receive funds". Thus, the entire movement is discredited in my mind as something insane.

It's unfortunate, but I will not start interpreting language "less accurately". I'll continue to agree that we need change, but I'm still more happy than unhappy with the basic existence of law enforcement.


> Many people, including me, take simple English words rather literally....

> It's unfortunate, but I will not start interpreting language "less accurately".

But, in this case, the literal interpretation is the "less accurate" one. Literal != accurate.


> It's unfortunate, but I will not start interpreting language "less accurately".

Do you feel the same way about "Starve the beast"?[1] Surely you understand the difference between a slogan and a program?

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starve_the_beast


Some slogans tend to detract from their end goals, too. Not sure that comparing it to an unsuccessful republican slogan is really a good look.

While I agree that “defund the police” is a bad slogan, no fluent speaker of any language takes words and phrases literally. Human communication is chock full of idioms, allusions, allegories, and a number of other rhetorical devices that depend on a non-literal interpretation of words. It’s highly unrealistic for you to declare that you “take simple English words rather literally”, as that’s not how natural languages work.

There's a thing I constantly tell people. Communication often has three components: 1) What you mean to say, 2) What you say, 3) What was heard. As a communicator you should try to ensure that what you say and what you mean are the same. All the while you have to keep in mind your audience to ensure what was heard was what was intended. At the same time, as a listener your job is to try to understand the meaning and not what was said. Getting the intent is much harder and requires one to be aware of the limitations of language and communication as well as your own internal biases and often the biases of the one communicating (what assumptions are they operating under).

Additionally, analogies, slogans, sayings, and such are all simplified and reduced methods intended to prime a person to remember or think of a more complicated topic. Here "defund/abolish the police" is an easy to remember/say slogan (and can be easily written down and read from afar). It is much harder to communicate "we need to rethink policing in general, their funding, and what they should be doing. Currently we do not know the answer but are trying to drive a national discussion so that we can come to an agreement and fix what a large portion of us believe is a problem." The latter is much more vague and is trying to bring together people with wildly different opinions but do agree with that main point.

Reading __ANY__ slogan as an absolute and/or literal meaning is simply naive. It's hard enough to communicate accurately with the roughly 300 words in this comment, let alone slogans, which need to be smaller than a tweet.

rbecker 10 days ago [flagged]

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

That’s a straw man.

I never claimed that anyone can make up their own definitions, only that setting the bar at “literal meaning” is unrealistic, as that’s not how language actually works.

See: catching a bus by the skin of your teeth so that you and your friends can have a night out and paint the town red.

Chances are you understood exactly what I meant, but taken literally that sentence is utter jibberish.


But "abolish the police" isn't jibberish, and is what some people actually, literally, mean. So how can I tell?

> So how can I tell?

In communication as the recipient your job is to try to understand what is meant, not what is said.

Conversely, as the communicator, your job is to say what you mean, and ensure what is said is in line with what is meant. The added complexity is that to do this you need to have a decent grasp on what recipients will hear (as in "understand intent," as opposed to the literal words that they physically hear)


How can you tell what’s an idiom, and what isn’t? Context clues. Do the same thing here.

Or, actually listen to people. Your call.


So when I see someone on TV holding an "abolish the police" banner, which context clues should I use to figure out what they really mean?

The slogan makes many people think you're advocating an unreasonable idea that you're not actually advocating. Do you think that makes for a good slogan?

Edit: I apologize. I missed where you said it's a bad slogan, and took your defense of it as implying it's good.


> So when I see someone on TV holding an "abolish the police" banner, which context clues should I use to figure out what they really mean?

The same ones you use to understand what the word "police" means. Human language isn't a direct, thought transmission mechanism (especially with short utterances). Ambiguity and uncertainty and reliance on shared context are inherent. The artificial language Toki Pona gives an exaggerated demonstration of this [1].

> The slogan makes many people think you're advocating an unreasonable idea that you're not actually advocating. Do you think that makes for a good slogan?

No one can ever cram the nuance of a complex political position onto a slogan to fit on a sign. Inevitably someone will misunderstand to some degree, then have to go on to read one of the hundreds of articles titled "what does 'defund the police' mean?" to correct your misunderstanding.

If you're searching for some optimal slogan, you're not going to find it. Sure there are alternatives, but a couple things count in "defund the police"'s favor: 1) it succinctly indicates the topic and 2) pretty clearly conveys the opinion that a radical break with prior reform efforts is needed. "Abolish the police" does the same, except it's more amplified.

[1] https://www.theallusionist.org/allusionist/tokipona


I’ve made it clear I think it’s a bad slogan, why are you insisting on the contrary?

Language has to be precise for any nuanced conversation to be effective, otherwise it risks becoming rushed, oversimplistic and divisive. --- Abolish = to end an activity or custom officially

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/abolish?...

1) "Abolish the police" = To end the police officially --- Defund = to stop providing the money to pay for something

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/defund?q...

2) "Defund the police" = To stop providing the money for police --- Reform = to make an improvement, especially by changing a person's behaviour or the structure of something.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/reform?q...

3) "Reform the police" = To improve the police by changing its behavior/structure --- The meaning of these sentences is very clear and is not open to discussion.

My opinion: 1) is simply anarchic and unrealistic in any form of civilization. 2) is similar to 1), but might suggested perhaps a privately funded police instead of publicly funded? (a whole can of worms there) 3) is the most realistic and practical option and seems to me to be what most people mean and what states are doing. It's not the most dramatic and "attractive" thing to write on a poster though...

There are many more views and opinions of course, these are just my takes in 10m of writing and thinking.

Regardless, attempts to make this into an oversimplified binarily sided discussion reveal, IMHO, a lack of reading and comprehension ability or an agenda that is alternative to understanding and resolving these issues as a collaborative democratic society.


> Language has to be precise for any nuanced conversation to be effective, otherwise it risks becoming rushed, oversimplistic and divisive. --- Abolish = to end an activity or custom officially

But language __ISN'T__ precise and that's why we are required to understand one another in "good faith." I've said in many comments that communication has 3 parts: what is meant, what is said, and what is heard. Dr. Suss and Lewis Carol exemplify this in their literature.

Not only that, but definitions of words are constantly changing. A dictionary always lags behind the true definition. After all, any linguist will tell you that words only mean what a society agrees that they mean (note the difference between "a society" vs "the speakers of that language"). We see this quite frequently. An perfect example is "capitalism" and "socialism," if you're go to is the dictionary then you're probably extremely frustrated with how most everyone uses these terms and will notice that different groups use the same words to mean completely different things!

Language really is a mess.

> Regardless, attempts to make this into an oversimplified binarily sided discussion reveal, IMHO, a lack of reading and comprehension ability or an agenda that is alternative to understanding and resolving these issues as a collaborative democratic society.

This, I completely agree with. But the reason this is "a lack of reading and comprehension" is because "comprehension" is the acknowledgement that language is of itself imprecise and that your job as a reader is the read what was meant, and not what was said.


> But language __ISN'T__ precise and that's why we are required to understand one another in "good faith." I've said in many comments that communication has 3 parts: what is meant, what is said, and what is heard. Dr. Suss and Lewis Carol exemplify this in their literature.

Agreed, good faith is definitely required in a healthy debate, and I quite liked those comments and communication model. I'll be looking through those references in future, thanks!

And yes language is a mess, however, just because language is not a perfect construct or even as good as we expected it to be, I don't think we should relativize too much and put too much of the onus of the discussion on the reader. (like I've seen in threads here, some could rationalize away some words like "Abolish ~= Reform, so I'll just join this side of the protest, I'm sure that's what they meant... despite the pitchforks and torches...")

In a healthy discussion I think it is as much of the sender's (speaker, writer) job to make sure he is understood as is the receiver's (listener, reader) job to make sure he understands. Awareness of such models as the ones you referred would already be quite good for most discussions. Although I suspect on most media we end up seeing two people having concurrent ideological monologues rather than a discussion with intentful listening and non-manipulative speaking...

Specifically for "Abolish VS Defund VS Reform", I think we can do better and I don't think those 3 words really differ that much between dictionary and everyday language, and if I'm wrong and they do differ, the issue still remains, do we remove the system entirely, change its resources or change its behavior.

> ...any linguist will tell you that words only mean what a society agrees that they mean (note the difference between "a society" vs "the speakers of that language"). We see this quite frequently. An perfect example is "capitalism" and "socialism," if you're go to is the dictionary then you're probably extremely frustrated with how most everyone uses these terms and will notice that different groups use the same words to mean completely different things!

BTW, another couple of perfect examples: "fact" and "literally"...


> We turn complex conversations and topics into their most extreme forms and so we can actually discuss them

As an outsider watching all this going on, it seems the last thing anyone seems to want is a discussion; you're either on board or a racist. It's all very odd.


As an insider it is quite frustrating. The discussions seem to be just polarized to ends that are both ridiculous. "No police vs police should be more violent." "Open borders vs deport everyone and build a wall." Etc. The vast majority of people don't hold the positions on the extremes, but we talk like they are the representative voice. And look even at these comments. I said "These people are not the representative voice" and people are responding "But I know people that believe this! They aren't the majority, but they exist!" How is that the top response to my comment?! The comment is ironically the problem I'm specifically addressing. But I don't know what is unclear and how to tackle this. Feedback needed.

> From my understanding "abolish the police" means to reorganize it and greatly reduced the funding.

No, it means abolish the police (the centralized, monolithic, paramilitary local law enforcement agencies.)

It also means to reorganize the law enforcement function within local government, and probably reduce the distribution of resources devoted to armed law enforcement. But just reorganize/reduce funding is the “defund” not “abolish” position, which are related but distinct viewpoints.


Abolition has a specific meaning in America. So when you use "Abolish" as the root word, people think you mean to completely ban it. If the conversation should have been around something else, "reduce police funding" is the same amount of words as "defund the police" or "abolish the police" and actually means what protestors say it means.

And therein lies the main problem with all of this "abolish the police" bullshit. It's driven mainly by upper middle class whites who live in low crime areas and rarely if ever need police, and think everyone is the same way. Watch the protest videos carefully - there are hardly any black people there in a lot of cases. In fact last night I counted more high end bicycles in a protest video than black people. It's a common occurrence nowadays to see a self-righteous 20 year old trust fund kid "educate" a black police officer on how to be black. This is utterly idiotic.

I interacted with the police exactly 3 times in 20 years I lived in my neighborhood. Once I got a ticket for the missing front license plate on my car (deservedly so, paid the fine). Once my mailbox was broken into, and a police officer stopped by to ask questions and see if I'd press charges if they found the thief (of course I would, but they never found the guy), and once I had to call police on a neighbor who thought it'd be a wonderful idea to blast music at full volume at 2AM in the middle of the work week. That's the extent of it. There's no crime in my neighborhood, violent or otherwise, by any meaningful metric. If I thought all neighborhoods were like this, of course I'd be in favor of simultaneously defunding police and abolishing the second amendment.

Having seen total lawlessness first hand during the "wild 90's" in Russia, I don't have such illusions. I once saw a dude on his knees with a gun pointed at his forehead within 200m of the Red Square, with police officers watching but not intervening in the proceedings, probably because the mobster with the gun was above their pay grade. Don't know if the guy got shot or not, I couldn't do anything anyway, so I entered the nearby subway station and went home, but the image seared into my mind. Remember, this was in the very center of a large city. You can imagine what kinds of crazy shit went on on the outskirts.

People in South Chicago or in the bad parts of NY have no such illusions either. That's why I support _gradual_ police reform and increased funding (you can't, as a rule, get better service by paying less), have a safe full of guns and ammo, and will vote strenuously against any politician, irrespective of party affiliation or just about any other views, who tries to "defund" the police or restrict 2A. I fail to see how such measures would be in anyone's longer term interest.


Who is "someone"? How many people did they ask? What were the questions?

Without the police would we have bands of marauding warlords tormenting the citizens that are much worse than the police? Maybe some people are less aware of what that would look like, and some are more aware. Especially when it comes to their families/loved ones.

Interesting, do you have a link?

Not OP, but this Vox article has some interesting information about race disparities in viewpoints of police.

[0] https://www.vox.com/2020/6/3/21276824/defund-police-divest-e...


Nice. This is very interesting. I suppose it would be hard to make any assumptions about the reasoning here. At least Vox interprets this as black people "view inadequate protection and inadequate service levels as part of the larger pattern of mistreatment." That's entirely reasonable. If someone were to believe that the police institution itself is not racist, and it's just the individual cops who are the problem, then it's fair to come to the conclusion that more policing may solve the very real issue of crime in black communities.

However, just like the author of the article, I agree that we would need to see a similar poll now after the George Floyd protests to see if the opinion still stands, but it's important to note.


Here is a post-George Floyd poll: https://docs.cdn.yougov.com/86ijosd7cy/20200611_yahoo_race_p...

A plurality of African Americans (38-31) oppose cutting police budgets. African Americans are split 50-50 in whether we need more or fewer police on the streets. A supermajority (64-33) believe that the current police departments can be reformed.

A majority (51-17) support spending less on police and increasing funding for social programs, but try to reconcile this with the statistic above, where half want more police on the streets. (People might perceive this question as reduced budgets would hit management, etc., rather than beat cops).


Nice. However, since yougov experiences sample bias due to their data collection method being only online participants, and the sample size of black people isn't anywhere near even 5% margin of error (meaning it could be completely wrong) this study is not usable to draw conclusions on its own.

The sampling bias would have to be very large to throw off those numbers with 140+ African American participants.

Do you have a better poll that shows different numbers?


I don't but that's not really my point -- the poll itself isn't a problem, it's the lack of multiple polls that cautions me to draw concrete conclusions from it as rayiner did. 140 people out of 30 million is about 10% margin of error. Add sample bias to that and this poll alone is nowhere near conclusive, although as I indicated it's still useful to reflect on the issue.

> then it's fair to come to the conclusion that more policing may solve the very real issue of crime in black communities.

It depends upon what more policing means. I have been keeping a closer eye on what's happening in Canada, and it seems clear that the police are not trained or do not internalize training to handle certain situations particularly well. In extreme cases, this has resulted in situations being escalated and deadly force being used. Given complaints ranging from excessive force to racial profiling, it sounds like problem routinely plays itself out on a smaller scale. If a community is reluctant to trust the police, I doubt that they will see benefits from more traditional policing.

Some of the de-funding discussion has been about reducing police funding to allocate it to other social services, but I suppose that it could also be reallocated training officers who's primary purpose is community relations, responding to mental health issues, or handling criminal activity that is unlikely to require an armed response. This may make more sense than dumping responsibility onto social service agencies both due to the quality of training and the ability to immediately access police resources if escalation is inescapable.


Agreed. To a lot of people, policing means "solve disruptions in society" but that's an oversimplistic and unrealistic idea of what police are trained to do and what is even possible with an institution that treats violence as a necessary means to do their job.

And for the record, I am squarely in the defund camp, but also open minded to discussion.


It wouldn't explain the wide statistical variation between cities.

Black people are victims of crime that is perpetrated by people who are not police officers.

Link?

You're assuming that their information is accurate which we have no real reason to do.

From the article "It’s unclear how accurate Mobilewalla’s analysis actually is"


More specifically

> Datta told BuzzFeed News that his company, on average, has access to location data for 30% to 60% of people in any given location in the United States.

And getting down to it more: which 30-60% of people? I find it odd that when HN is talking about Covid they are so keen on finding the slightest bias in data/report and arguing over that, yet in posts like this most of the comments presume accuracy. I would expect the same scrutiny (which I think is good!) everywhere.


Not that I have an opinion about Mobilewalla's analysis but polling gets accurate results with far less than 30-60% sampling, so that, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem.

> polling gets accurate results with far less than 30-60% sampling, so that, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem.

I'd like to refer you to the sentence after I quoted the article.

>> And getting down to it more: which 30-60% of people?

Polling works hard to ensure that their data set is a representative demographic. We don't know that here. Considering that there are socioeconomic correlations between race, it isn't out of the question that this data is not representative. You could have 60% but if your data set isn't representative, you aren't going to draw accurate conclusions.


Polling has random sampling. We don’t know if Mobilewalla’s sampling is truly random or not.

And is there any bias inherent in that data along economic or racial lines? Given that black people are poorer on average in the US, any collection of data that’s biased based on cell phone cost might incidentally pick up a racial bias too.

Well, it could also be about the sort of data the company is collecting. Here in NYC there have been smaller protests in neighborhoods that are predominantly PoC, and this company may be only collecting data on the main large events.

Also, for a place like LA, there are systemic factors of poverty and homelessness in their Black populations that might make something like ownership of a permanent mobile number less likely [1].

Regardless, this practice of data harvesting should be illegal.

[1] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-06-13/column-a...


It's also possible that people who felt most at risk were also most likely to turn off their phones or leave them at home.

It's hard to know what kind of biases are in this data without access to it.


Another possibility: the Mobilewalla data is bad.

Interesting, but is it possible that it’s bad data? What app gave them permission to have this data —- is it possible that the app’s users are a similar demographic?

Just like voting, attending protests is a privilege to those who can afford to not be working 24/7. Lower-income jobs don't even have the concept of "time off" or flexible schedules.

Protests also have the risk of being wrongfully arrested or injured and not being able to get to work the next day.


Or maybe they simply didn't agree with the premise of the protests.

Of the people I've talked to in real life, most don't, so these numbers are not too surprising to me.

Some sort of factor, that exists most strongly in large urban centers, that discourages black people from acting out of line?

Perhaps, like, a racist police force?


I don't know why this is being downvoted, I think it's a perfectly valid point. The entire basis of BLM protests is about use of police violence against black people. If I were black and think I'm more likely to get the shit beat out of me (pepper-balled, rubber bulleted, tear gassed, etc.) at a protest I'm more likely to avoid it entirely.

Edit: On reflection, maybe the downvote was more about the tone that it was presented in?


The site guidelines ask people not to be snarky in comments here.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Between the article and the orig report, I found the data presented in a confusing way.

> "African American males made up the majority of protesters in the four observed cities vs. females"

Then follows pie charts showing Caucasians outnumbered African-Americans 6:1.

It looks like what they meant was 'among African-American protesters, the majority were male'.


The square with the color in the legend is very small, so it's very difficult to understand what the pies represent.

(I don't understand how they choose the colors.)


Yes that’s what they meant. It is really poorly worded. They could have used a copy editor to check that.

That said it looks like males dominated most of the charts in most cities cited.


I remember that there was some protest survival guide, and it mentioned to either leave the smartphone at home, or bring a dumb phone w/o contract, so you can at least call an ambulance if need be.

Exactly! Never bring a smartphone to a protest and keep the dumb phone shut off, except if an emergency qualifies otherwise.

There are hundreds of reasons for not bringing a smartphone, not only the abuse of companies like Mobilewalla. Imagine if you happen to be close to a storefront that is vandalized or a statue that is brought down - cellphone data will make you a terrorist suspect! (At least in the current US).


More specifically, this undermines the stated justification for Mobilewalla's report. Which was to determine the amount of protestors who came from outside the cities they appeared in. If I'm the operator of a protests-as-a-service company the first thing I do is make sure none of the people have a cell phone that can be used to trace them back to me.

But that was the stated justification. The real purpose of the report is to advertise what Mobilewalla does. I consider this a form of profiteering.


If you assume that everyone has perfect Opsec, then there is now need for law enforcement at all, because all crime would be undetectable.

Why would you need to hide having participated in a protest? It is an act which is protected by the First Amendment in the US Constitution.

> It is an act which is protected by the First Amendment in the US Constitution.

Which is just a piece of paper. It has absolutely no power to protect you. Only a government that respects it can do that, and it's a certainty that our government will, from time to time, completely disregard that document when it feels the need to.

People have good rational reasons for hiding all sorts of legal activities they participate in.


Because law enforcement and the justicr system do not strictly obey the Constitution.

To put it another way: you can't rely on the Constitution to protect you during a protest against violations of the Constitution.


During Occupy I remember cops targeted a protester that had driven in on a company vehicle and told the company to get him fired.

The reality is that you night be illegally targeted and profiled based on data that is freely accessible. Robbery is illegal, yet it still makes sense to avoid behavior that can get you robbed.

To what end is the targeting and profiling illegal? Simply having publicly-available analyzed is not illegal.

It's not illegal (though unethical imho), it's the actions taken using that knowledge. Most effective if combined with parallel construction [1] that allow police to issue a trumped-up charge on a specific target.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallel_construction


Imagine attending a left leaning protest, having your participation recorded (unknowingly) forever by your phone, and then having a right wing, authoritarian government come to power and use that forever information to round up yourself and your friends.

Or imagine a left wing authoritarian government targeting lockdown protestors.

We should all be concerned about wanton data collection.


> Mobilewalla does not collect the data itself, but rather buys it from a variety of sources, including advertisers, data brokers, and internet service providers.

So we can mobilise to use this data for profiling protestors, but not to help tackle a pandemic which is spreading concurrently?


This data has an accuracy of something like ~80ft on average.

https://www.mobilemarketer.com/ex/mobilemarketer/cms/news/re....


Ah, right - less than I thought. I suppose that could be useful for mass-gatherings but generally we should not have those anyway.

Thank you for the correction


They don't get the fine detailed data that is needed for contact tracing.

We cant we just dont care to.

I'm confused why hacker news thinks collecting demographic data is a bad thing, and is all about regulating it... when everyone's personal website has google analytics installed and is doing the exact same thing. Yet we don't bat an eye at it.

Seriously though, doesn't it strike any of you as absolutely hypocritical? We're attacking data collection in public spaces in real life, while defending it in our own domain (virtual life). I know that a lot of tech industry paychecks come from monetizing people's data...

It's quite possibly different people arguing either side.

Part of the difference is scope and purpose. I'm ok with Amazon using my purchase, and product viewing data, to recommend products I might like to purchase. I'm even ok with them using aggregated data to determine where to invest in white-labled products, fix UX issues, or find fraud rings.

What I'm not ok with, is them selling my data, combining it with cellphone data, netflix viewing data, creditcard data, magazine subscriptions, email subscriptions, and many others, and building personal profiles that governments, political organizations, and commercial enterprises I don't have a direct relationship with to abuse.

I don't think it is a slippery-slope from from the more narrow, single-firm use case to the broad-profile-being abused. GDPR and similar regulation is one way we can get there. We are going to need probably another generation of people and laws to figure out the right regulatory norms and frameworks, but it seems like a tractable problem.


Amazon doesn't sell your data. You can't have a legitimate discussion about this on HN because no one does their research and so just make outrageously incorrect claims like that.

Netflix, apple, etc don't sell data. There is no such thing as building a 'personal profile' by combining data from all these different sources. Data is licensed in aggregate, and typically anything under 1,000 user ids can't be used. Unless your bringing in data yourself, you can't build profiles on individuals.

I 100% agree that we need major privacy regulation, but the first step in that is putting in effort to actually understand and discuss the facts.


> Data is licensed in aggregate, and typically anything under 1,000 user ids can't be used.

You are correct that the reputable companies I used in my strawman apply practices like this. But it is certainly not the case that this is universal. I've worked professionally with all sorts of a data brokers (for anti-abuse/fraud purposes) and there are many who deal with non-anonymized datasets, especially if we are talking about firms that evolved out the direct-marketing space. Further, there are many ways to make use of semi-anonymized data that while, not strictly joining private information, are able to perform profile appends and data imputation in ways that allow for inferences many would consider privacy violations regardless of the fact the technical construction methods don't directly access specific profiles and are at some level stochastic.

But all that was besides my point, which was perhaps lost with a bad example. HN readers can be both FOR increased use of customer data for acute purposes and AGAINST broader abuses of such data without being hypocritical. There is a relevant distinction to be drawn.


Apologies I always forget that I only have experience with the big guys and haven’t seen what the smaller vendors are doing. I’ve made that mistake before so definitely a blind spot for me.

I do think that what smaller players is doing is the thing people thing of as obviously immoral, but those practices get pinned on everyone else.


Respectfully this is wholesale incorrect. It is trivial for a practiced data guy working in the discovery space to build a cia worthy dossier on someone solely by buying data and building appropriate data models. I am not making an outrageous unresearched claim. I am staying what I know to be true, having worked in the space.

Credit card providers most certainly sell your data. Data brokers have detailed profiles on everyone. They don't anonymize anything when their whole business is selling names and addresses of hyper-specific demographics.

Source? You can read my comment history - I’ve worked extensively in this exact industry. I literally built bespoke audience segments directly with visa and oracle, which have strict rules including the number of people in an audience and the type of purchase/retailers included. It’s not hyper-targeted, unless you consider something like “everyone who bought a flight flying through LAX in the past 3 months using their Visa card” as such. That segment is probably around 1MM ids, which gets scaled up with machine learning to 5MM similar people (the minimum size for any visa audience segment). 5MM people is about 35MM IDs (cookies, device ids, etc).

They 100% do not sell names, addresses, or any personally identifiable information because that’s super illegal.


Acxiom has been doing this for 50 years. Their database is extensive. How do you think targeted direct mail works?

Not everyone's. The majority, probably, sure, but it's not at all required or anything.

And "hacker news thinks collecting demographic data is a bad thing" is uncharitably broad.


I don't mean to ask in bad faith - does Google Analytics collect information about my race/age/other personal information, or just data about my computer? I haven't personally used GA so I don't know.

There's a real, specific concern here that doesn't apply to Google analytics on blogs. The concern is that if this data is available for purchase by a company consumers haven't heard of, it's available for purchase by police. Police could use location details to track, arrest, or harass people they don't like. And this has implications outside the U.S. as well.

But also I think you'll find that some of the same people in this thread also complain about Google analytics. My personal website, for example, does not use Google analytics.


I suspect the target audience of many a website would be blocking GA too.

What makes you think we don't care about both?

Much of this data comes from a company called https://www.airsage.com/

The anonymization is a joke, they had fixed IDs over I think a 30 day window.

Airsage should be shut down and C-levels to the board should be jailed for wire tapping.


>” If [this data] ends up in hands of the government, or if protesters are concerned that it could end up in the hands of the government, that may suppress speech, it may deter people from going to protests,” Hussain said.”

At this point I don’t think it’s government so much as private companies I’m concerned about.

Candidates silently get ignored depending on what this kind of data shows.


Does anyone know more specifically how a company like Mobilewalla gets location data? Is it from Google, or from apps people open on their phone, or from trackers on websites, or from cell data, or from something else?

Also, is there any way to prevent Google from tracking the location of my Android phone short of uninstalling Android?


Cell service companies track your location based on signal strength, and are known for selling this data to as many third parties as possible. There is no way to stop them from tracking your phone location, short of removing your SIM card.

> There is no way to stop them from tracking your phone location

Is airplane mode or turning your phone off effective? I've heard stated before that they are not, but I don't understand the technical details.


"T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are selling access to their customers’ location data..."

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/nepxbz/i-gave-a-bounty-hu...


It's unlikely this information is coming from Google or Apple directly. There are a ton of ad supported apps out there which collect location data and feed location data (and piles of other metrics) back to the advertising companies who sell the data to data brokers and use it for advertising.

> Also, is there any way to prevent Google from tracking the location of my Android phone short of uninstalling Android?

Good question.


Very often, it’s the phone networks which are selling our location data to these brokers. There is virtually no regulation on this, and for phone companies it’s basically free money.

Does the ethnicity data also come from phone companies?

I hope not, but I expect that with a few days of browsing history it’s trivial to predict ethnicity.

Probably easier to get it via match.com and their subsidiaries.

The data is all over. It goes through brokers and agents and multiple companies that perform various aggregations and shapings... Data Breaches, Crisis and Opportunity (ISBN 978-0-13-450678-4)

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/aug/14/how-to-tu...

Basically use somebody else's maps, at the extreme end you can opt out of find my phone, and just don't manually use any Google services at all.


I wonder if that data can be correlated against recent Covid spikes. The cities in Texas showing the most dramatic rise in diagnosis are also those that experienced the largest quantities of protests delayed exactly the same amount of time as the incubation period.

That wouldn't explain the flat rates in NYC [0] or Minneapolis and St. Paul (Hennepin/Ramsey County) [1]

[0] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronav...

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/minnesota-corona...

edit: Also, Texas had a Phase 3 reopening on June 3, which is around the time of peak protest: https://gov.texas.gov/news/post/governor-abbott-announces-ph...


A few weeks ago, I remember Cuomo patting himself and New Yorkers on the back for continuing to see a decline in cases. It's a lot easier to do that when 20% of NYC residents have antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, and that was in May. I'm sure this limited spread during protests somewhat in NYC.

That said, social distancing during protests, being outdoors, how many people had active infections (this varies wildly across the US), mask use, actions (positive and negative) by the police, and living situations of the protesters (alone in an apartment or four roommates) all have an effect.


Only in the presence of social distancing or other countermeasures.

20% antibodies means that you could have an R = 1.25 and still get an effective R < 1.0, preventing further onwards transmission. R0 estimates for COVID-19 ranged from 2.5-6, so by itself 20% of the population with antibodies wouldn't do anything (it'd reduce R to 2-4.8, which is still pretty quick exponential spread, faster than the flu). However, R in the U.S. around the time of the protests was measured at about 1.07, because it wasn't fully opened up yet and many people are staying home out of fear. Under those conditions NYC gets an effective R = 0.85 (epidemic dies out), while a state with 2% antibodies has an effective R = 1.05, which is still positive (albeit slow) exponential spread.

I suspect it's a combination of the lax social distancing requirements + lack of immunity. NYC would still be experiencing exponential spread without existing immunity, but it's only because they're still locked down that the level of immunity they have can prevent an epidemic.


I was initially concerned about that. But it appears that protests didn't cause big spikes, or even detectable spikes, probably for two reasons: first, the protests were outdoors. Second, almost all the protesters wore masks. The recent super-spreader events have mainly been large indoor gatherings, parties and the like.

I rarely like to trot out the 'correlation is not causation' thing, but that's just what you'd expect given the large population. but it's not borne out in other places, eg Florida has not had massive protests but they are suffering from a big spike in coronavirus cases. And if we look at this stats page focusing on California down to the county level (but also including other state data), you can see that the rate of increase is not really well correlated with protest activity after all unless you cherry-pick the data .

https://ca-covid-r.info/


Considering cell phone companies in the US already have this data have this data and have been anonymizing it for covid-19 research, and considering public health officials are doing some degree of contact tracing, it's pretty strange how little information has been coming out about how and where most people have been getting it. Not just in the context of protests, even before that, it's been a huge hole in data released to the public.

Occam's razor suggests un-wise decisions like re-opening bars in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, and undermining currently-accepted best practices like having the general public wear masks, would be the first things one should consider in determining the cause of recent Covid spikes in Texas.

Not saying protests couldn't / don't have an effect. Saying that if we want to determine the root cause of the dramatic rise of Covid-19 in Texas, let's be logical about it.

[EDIT: Instead of calling Texas's decisions stupid, I changed my language to "un-wise", in the interests of precision.]


Unwise, but also unintelligent. Either stat would tell you this was a bad idea.

Doesn't explain New York where Covid is just a little over 100 new cases/day. And there were, and still are, plenty of protests.

Maybe they achieved hard immunity? The spike there was much taller / narrower than elsewhere, leading to the ironic situation where the worst handling of the disease leads to great numbers once past the peak. Compare to CA where the curve was flattened and then leveled out - had we allowed exponential growth here we would also likely see fewer cases today.

Herd immunity for COVID-19 is 60-85% of the population. (The formula is 1 - 1 / R0; intuitively, the average person spreads the virus to R0 other people, so if only 1 / R0 people are still susceptible, effective R = R0 * 1 / R0 = 1 and the epidemic reaches a steady-state instead of growing.) NYC antibody tests have indicated about 20% immunity. They're still a long way away from herd immunity.

I used to look at the BLM protest videos to determine how many of them wore masks and a vast majority of them did in the videos I saw. Meanwhile those protesting the lockdowns and going to bars and beaches hardly did any.

No they haven't.


As someone who lives in Texas, I'd point out that Texas "reopened" before the protests and I saw people with huge public gatherings and birthday and pool parties and no masks.

This NBER study suggests that protests had, if anything, a slightly favorable impact on infection rates: https://www.nber.org/papers/w27408

That doesn't explain Florida. The biggest days of protests nationwide were rained out in FL.

How do these ass-clowns get stuff like mobile application I'm using https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/4309344/Mobilewalla%20Data%20... https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/4309344/Content%20Offers/Mobi... and even location data https://www.mobilewalla.com/places-of-interest-data-schema Do carriers ship some kind of Mobilewalla telemetry app on the phone people use?

Having done some work in this space I can tell you the exact process. Applications on your phone provide a maid. Mobile Application ID. Which reports back it's(the phones) geo location. Using some basic statistics regarding location, duration of stay, time of day, you infer home address, work address. Once you have a small foothold you go to aggregated data repositories and run a query. Once you get a positive hit the rest is dead simple.

I had been paranoid about this for some time, thanks for confirming.

It is so trivially easy to decipher a person's life from their location data, especially with some simple ML.

The fact that it's so easy ensures in my mind that it's only a matter of time before this data falls into the hands of a true authoritarian administration.


This data has been commercially available for years. Assume that every government has it.

Out of curiosity, are you able to provide any examples of these aggregated data repositories?

Data management platform 'dmp' is the software where these segments are stored and used in advertising. ie http://www.oracle.com/us/solutions/cloud/data-directory-2810...

Is the Mobile Application ID the same as the Advertising ID found on Android and iPhone?

MAID, IDFA, etc are all slightly different but in effect yes, they provide a device id for use in advertising.

A comment I made recently:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23138828

Basically, cell service providers collect as much data as possible and share it with as many third parties as possible. They keep track of your internet traffic, and they can keep track of your location based upon signal strength.

This is just one of the sources they get their data from, but there’s no way to stop it, short of removing your SIM card.


Probably from network calls (DNS and HTTPS).

An easy one is to provide a mobile hotspot with the name `attwifi` with no password and just sniff the data. You can derive a lot of data just from the network activity on a phone and since you're on WiFi, you can get approximate WiFi location. A couple of dozen laptops in a couple of buildings and you can also approximate the direction the phones moved as they go from device to device.


That's why it is extremely important to run apps like NoRootFirewall and block all the apps from being able to access internet while they are not in use.

How do you feel about Blokada application?

I do not know it/of it so I cannot really say. If it works along the lines of NoRootFirewall ( creates a firewall to localhost and forces all internet connectivity to to go through that tunnel with a per app/per host allow/deny policies that are easy for a user to enale/disable ) then it is strictly the question of UX/design decisions.

FFS, my camera application wants to talk to the internet, sometimes when I'm NOT using it!


Vulgar language makes your comment hard to read.

I disagree. It's an effective way of conveying emotion and in so breathes "life" to the words. It's a gentle reminder that the person typing these things is human; bringing along a range of complicated life experiences and emotions that you may be unaware of. Perhaps you need to look inwards and discover why something that is ordinarily insignificant brings you so much frustration. Is it from a preconceived idea that swearing implies a lack of intelligence? Time for some introspection.

How was this data collected? They bought it, but how was it collected in the first place? Random apps with shady privacy policies?

There's a whole cottage industry of apps monetizing user location in bulk.

They mainly position themselves as local deals apps (find the best restaurant, get a coupon from nearby store) and fitness apps (rewards for walking, running, etc.)

Both use cases call for always-on location sharing.


Once I was approached by an ad company that wanted to use geo data gathered by Candy Crush that they purchased to target people with ads on their daily commute.

It seems like it would be very difficult to distinguish which side of the police line someone is on based on a pile of demographics. How many of those are protestors versus police? Likewise, National Guard, reporters, fire department, medical, etc. If they separated them out, it doesn't say they did in the article or even hint at an attempt.

I don't think so. Read this: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-help...

I am fairly confident they can easily tell which way someone leans on the matter.


Government workers are a tiny fraction of population at a protest.

If you have been watching live streams, you will learn many protesters don't understand what a "live stream" is, because the streamer tries to explain it to them and they still think it is a recording that can be deleted.

But while it initially goes out live, after the live stream ends the video becomes a recording, which can be deleted.

On one stream I watched, the streamer tells a protester they are live streaming. The protester literally says, "I don't know what that is." And actually recordings can't be deleted because viewers are recording the live stream and have their own copies instantly which they upload to twitter or youtube.

Unless someone saves that stream.

While the demographics, techniques, & reaction are all interesting, there's no support in the article text for Buzzfeed's headline claim of "almost 17k protestors had no idea a tech company was tracing their location". For example, there's no survey of the involved mobile users – or even a quote from a present individual! – to ask or otherwise confirm how many had 'no idea' of such tracking.

While often people are surprised at the tracking that's happened, usually as a result of 'fine print' they've clicked-through at some point, this is a young, activist & heavy-mobile-using population. Many will know or suspect tracking is happening. The more privacy-oriented organizers often inform participants of such considerations.

Those affected have probably consciously enabled many kinds of 'location sharing' options & location-sensitive apps – and then specifically used those features to share updates/photos, with explicit location disclosure, from the protest site. Many may have a generationally blasé attitude about the inevitability of such tracking.

Some may even be happy that "I'm being counted". There's always controversy after mass actions as to the actual number of participants, or how many truly represent a certain local community, with biased estimates from those with agendas. A possible silver-lining of technological tracking, if the potential abuse for persecuting individuals can be prevented, is that it can turn mass actions into more-accurately-measured "super-petitions", reflecting both viewpoint & intensity-of-commitment, for change.


Not to wear a tinfoil hat, but couldn't this data be entirely made up?

It also seems to imply that the data is 100% accurate. And that is also wrong based on what I see.


Sure. Any researcher could be lying.

Data Breaches, Crisis and Opportunity (ISBN 978-0-13-450678-4)

I always "knew" that mass data is evaluated for many things, but I had no idea how much I didn't know. That book - besides being an excellent reference for anyone responsible for protecting data - is unsettling in showing the depth of the market and how it works. The topic headline doesn't even scratch the surface.


Mobilewalla data 101: Mobilewalla is a next generation data company that employs big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and creativity to power the most granular consumer intelligence platform on the planet. Mobilewalla is the only consumer data provider employing time-based analysis of location and app usage. The leading provider of Nielsen-verified mobile audience insights, Mobilewalla’s cutting-edge proprietary compression algorithm enables the storage, accessing, and analysis of 80 petabytes of data.

Collection methodology: Mobilewalla harnesses location and behavior-based data to understand consumers and recognize where individuals are in their life journey based on two years of historical data. User information is collected from a variety of sources so advertisers can engage consumers who are ready to buy and develop compelling advertising campaigns that speak directly to their best customers.


It gets much, much worse than this.

Companies are now promoting data services to advertisers that allow a company to install a cookie on their website and, by just having a user complete a site visit, match an IP address to a physical mailing address with claimed 90% + accuracy.

Don't believe me? Check out this company: https://www.eltoro.com/

One of many companies that have recently popped up offering just such a service.


This is going to be skewed by the fact that not all people - and certainly not all protestors - carry cell phones. It also wouldn't be terribly surprising if the rate at which they do so varies by race, income, etc.

Even if the individual is privacy focused, careful with the apps on their smartphone, if the cellular service provider pimps out the telemetry there's little one could do to protect the privacy.

One of the reasons to have 'Non cellular network mobile Internet'[1] via long range hotspots where we could use standard techniques we use to protect ourselves from the ISP.

[1]https://needgap.com/problems/51-non-cellular-network-mobile-...


The best technical option here is to allow for dynamic payment for cellular services (via privacy-preserving payment protocols like Lightning) and no fixed hardware identifiers like IMEI. You just randomize your IMEI/MAC/whatever every time you connect to a new provider. Many of the challenges here are that wireless regulators outlaw such privacy-protecting measures.

How is 'dynamic payment for cellular services' the best technical option than ditching SIM altogether for WiFi and using encrypted apps for voice calls? More over, no handset level changes or changes to govt. policy is required, user can choose to not have a cellular provider(Parent link has couple of companies doing that in India).

Range outside of hyperdense urban centers.

Fair enough, but any sate of the art technology first reaches the urban center especially when it's privacy focussed.

That's definitely going to continue to be a thing.

New technology adds new ways to protest and counter-protest. Cell phones have brought us mass-tracking and flash-mobs.


The difference between a report and a publicity stunt is the detailed discussion of sampling and category inference methodology contained in a report.

The reports showed ethnicity of the protestors. Is this inferred from ad preferences? Or, is there a database that keeps this?

It comes from many different places and is cross-correlated at many levels. From credit card purchase history to social media to phone location data, across multiple agents and brokers throughout the data market. See: Data Breaches, Crisis and Opportunity (ISBN 978-0-13-450678-4)

Thank you for the reference. I will look for it.

The report mentions ethnicity is inferred from browsing history, which they are also able to purchase from data brokers.

It's US so mobile providers, ISP very likely have such data from being voluntary provided by customers.

Are you implying that US ISP's ask the race of their customers? I've never been asked by AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, Spectrum, or other ISPs I've used.

I'm not in the business but I'd guess that an ISP can determine with pretty high confidence your race, ethnicity, gender, approximate age and approximate income simply by analyzing your DNS requests. And they probably have a lot more data than DNS.

Agreed, but I wouldn't describe that as "being voluntary provided by customers."

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